I held the flyer for Jane Goodall’s event with a firm grasp as fellow Emory senior Mae Bowen and I ate a quick lunch in a hallway of the Le Bourget Cop 21 site. After an update on our days and the soon-to-be-released latest draft of the Paris Agreement, we couldn’t help but gush about our environmental girl crush. We were about to attend an event hosted by Jane Goodall, and we couldn’t believe it. We shared memories of how her work and photographs had inspired us since we were children.
And then there she was.
The woman, world leader, scientist, and educator I had idolized for years was now standing humbly in the hallway amongst a few assistants but talking to no one. She upheld the same quiet energy and austerity that I had always imagined. Mae and I forgot our sandwiches and realized the unforgettable opportunity we had before us. We walked forward.
As we both shook her hand and exchanged pleasantries, I realized that for me, this is what the 21st Conference of Parties is all about. Not to belittle the importance of a global agreement, but the COP has also become a symbol for the international engagement by the widest range of people, cultures, and disciplines. People are no longer waiting for the guidance of a governmental framework. Although a framework will ease the implementation of initiatives, people have already starting putting global problems front and center. There is undoubted power in the act of over 50,000 passionate individuals — whether it be students, indigenous peoples, entrepreneurs, delegates, philanthropists, CEOs, CSOs (chief sustainability officers), activists, journalists, or politicians — talking climate change.
Goodall was joined with IUCN Director General Ingar Anderson and film director and forest-climate activist Jeff Horowitz. There was a screening of his short film Stop the Burning, and an open discussion about forest burning and its implications for biodiversity and climate change. Horowitz has also contributed to the Emmy-awarded documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, and is about to release his newest climate-change documentary Time to Choose.
Horowitz introduced his film by explaining that tropical forests are holy places for biodiversity and that burning is decimating the fraction of forest we have left. According to the Huffington Post, this year’s “burning season” in Indonesia resulted in over 100,000 forests destroyed and 1.7 billion tons of carbon cast into the atmosphere. Half of the world’s forests are already burned; at this rate, they will disappear by the end of the century. He explained that he will use any opportunity to communicate this message, and when he was invited to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF), in Davos, Switzerland last January, he realized the perfect opportunity to hold global corporate leaders accountable. The film creates a compelling infusion of immaculate visual imagery of forests, wildlife and deforestation along with the voices of business, political, and civil society leaders. These voices included CEO of Nestle Paul Bulcke, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Unilever Paul Polman, along with several others. The film is dedicated to the millions of people, plants and animals affected by “slash and burn” agriculture.
In revisiting the cloud forests, river valleys, and canopies through Horowitz’s lens, I couldn’t help but remember my own experiences in the Amazon:
There’s a certain feeling that I can’t really describe—when you finally meet the people and culture that you’ve researched for so long. This is how I felt when I walked into the ceremonial hut of the Yagua tribe. There they were, adorned exactly how they are in pictures. They are a very, very small people, made bigger by the volume of their palmate headdresses and skirts. The elderly of the tribe dominated the group that performed for my class. As they hummed and sang, I felt that their rhythm synchronized with that of the forest, or maybe even—the rainforest was synchronizing with them. Together, they spoke a language I will never fully understand.
Through both my own experiences and through watching the film, it is clear to me that so many of us inundated in consumerism have lost our connection with the natural world. And in doing so, we have lost our passion and replaced it with apathy. The consequences are clear. The film allowed the audience to both see and hear the beauty we have at our disposal, how we are destroying it, and how we as young people can do something about it.
Goodall began her discussion with a statement on the interconnectedness of nature that I had also observed in the forest. “Biodiversity is tremendously important. It is the tapestry of life. When you pull one thread, the tapestry begins to disintegrate.” She paused, and then added: “Why do we think we that we as humans are so important? The indigenous peoples don’t think this way.”
IUCN Director General Inger Anderson explained that an investment in forests is an investment in our livelihoods. “It is an investment in the people, in our health, our climate’s resilience, and our food.”
Horowitz agreed, noting that the Paris COP 21 allows for both the top-down global Paris Agreement and the facilitation of bottom-up initiatives, like the film.
“Leaders always say things,” he noted, “but films like this hold them accountable.”
Jane agreed, and summarized the panelists’ conversation by transitioning towards her global youth-led program, Roots & Shoots. “It hurts me to see these forests destroyed, and there’s simply no way that we can try and save these chimpanzees while people are starving. I realized that we need teams of knowledgeable local people, along with youth, who could listen to what the people wanted and solve their problems.”
Her mission is clear. The young voice is a strong voice, and Goodall emphasized that it was time we stood up for the world we live in and will soon lead. Within the institute, she emphasized that she lets the youth do what they need to do. Collaboration, communication and interaction with the various communities they work with have become the necessary ingredients for success. Since, her organization has grown exponentially, especially with college students.
She asked the audience if we knew why exactly her organization was called “Roots and Shoots.” A few shook their heads no.
“I like to ask people to recall their favorite tree,” she said. “Mine is a 2,000 year old oak. And then I like to think how this oak tree was once a small little acorn that could fit in the palm of my hand with just one little root and shoot. And because of the magic of this seed, that little shoot can work through the cracks of a brick wall and soon break it down.” She paused, adding weight to her next few words. “Without hope, there is nothing.” The softness of her voice made her words all the more powerful.
I feel that the entirety of the rainforest, from the forest floor to its inhabitants to the brimming tops of the canopy, is rich with energy, color and sound. It is a system larger than we can ever comprehend, but I feel that as we continue to analyze and understand each of these layers, we will not only personally appreciate its importance, but also continue to educate others on why we must appreciate it.
On an early morning boat ride while working in the same area of the Amazon, I began to realize the notion I have just explained. Once written in my notebook, I knew that I had given myself an obligation not only to this landscape, but to future generations as well.
It’s early morning on the Amazon River. The engine of the boat is turned off and we are following the current. It is astounding to see miles and miles of untouched foliage. It is so beautiful and so vulnerable. It seems like it is patiently waiting for man to manipulate and destroy it.
It’s comforting to know that there’s a slight possibility—ever so slight—that this isn’t the case here. Maybe, if enough people see and do as I’ve seen and done, then maybe there’s a chance that this magical place will survive. There is hope.
Be sure to check out Jeff Horowitz’s short, impactful film,
Stop The Burning:
Savannah Miller is a senior at Emory University and an Emory delegate at COP21. Learn more about Savannah.